Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Bonnie Parker Story
(American International Pictures, 1958)

Bonnie with her preferred phallic symbol.

• Cigar Smoking Hellcat of the Roaring Thirties
• She Lived Like A Woman, And Killed Like An Animal!

Just the Facts
The Bonnie Parker Story appeared amidst a spate of late-50s gangster biographies. The cycle began with Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson (1957) and centered on notable historical criminals of the 1930s. None of these movies were entirely faithful to the actual lives of their subjects (surprise!), and this one was no exception. The real Bonnie Parker apparently never killed anyone or smoked cigars; her character does plenty of both in this 1958 AIP production. The actual Clyde Barrow was a hard-bitten criminal and unrepentant murderer, aspects that are belied somewhat by Jack Hogan’s wisecracking portrayal. (For some reason, the film also changes Clyde Barrow’s name to Guy Darrow.) But The Bonny Parker Story gets closer to the truth than most films about the famous pair, notably in its refusal to soft soap their callousness, and boasts a harder edge to boot.

The action begins in 1932 in Oklahoma City, where Bonnie (Dorothy Provine) is doing time in a greasy spoon while hubby Duke Jefferson (Richard Bakalyan) serves out his life sentence in prison. Enter Guy, a small-time thief with big-time delusions. Bonnie can take him or leave him, but senses his potential, especially when he shows her his machine gun. (There’s B movie thematics for you!) They hook up and start knocking over bars and gas stations across Texas, but while Guy is content with penny ante jobs, Bonnie longs for bigger scores. Meanwhile, Bob Steel (Douglas Kennedy), the Texas Ranger tasked with their arrest, arranges for Guy’s brother to get parole and then tails him to the gang’s hideout in a Missouri farmhouse. Before Guy can say, “Holy cow! There’s somebody out there holding National Guard maneuvers in the front yard,” the law has rolled out the welcome wagon with tear gas shells and a fusillade of bullets. The gang briefly returns fire before piling into a getaway car and making a hasty escape as Bonnie fills a couple of sheriff’s deputies full of lead.

Just a couple of young, carefree killers.

The teed-off Ranger tracks the gang to Iowa and stages a shoot-first ambush during which Guy’s brother Chuck (Joseph Turkel) is killed, although Bonnie and Guy manage to slip away. Bonnie, now firmly in control, engineers Duke’s prison escape so they’ll have the manpower necessary to start robbing banks. Having achieved her objective, however, Bonnie seems to derive more enjoyment from denying both men her sexual favors than separating depositors from their life savings. Following a botched payroll truck heist (during which a jealous Guy “accidentally” kills Duke in the ensuing shootout), he and Bonnie cross the state line into Georgia, where they have a big bank job lined up. Unfortunately for them, the father of one of their new recruits tips off Steel that the wanted couple will be at his house the next morning. Come sunup, the Texas Ranger and assorted lawmen hunker down by the side of the road, guns at the ready, as Bonnie and Guy drive towards their appointment with fate.

Guy likes to practice shooting between the cans.

Summary Judgment
The many films based on Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow range from the fanciful Gun Crazy (directed by Joseph H. Lewis in 1949) to Arthur Penn’s more literal Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Nestled between these two like a bullet in the chamber is this cheap exploitation biopic. If The Bonnie Parker Story lacks the expressionist power of the former, it avoids the artistic pretensions of the latter.

Director William Witney, veteran of countless serials and B films, was no Joseph H. Lewis. In fact, he never got within shouting distance of an A film. But Witney was shrewd enough to recognize Provine as the film’s biggest asset, and duly makes her the focus of attention from start to finish. That includes the opening titles, in which her mirrored reflection strips down to a form-fitting slip as Ronald Stein’s rockabilly instrumental theme establishes an evocative backroads vibe. As the last title fades, Bonnie pulls a light cord and plunges the screen into darkness, whereupon Witney cuts to a close-up on a machine gun in full fury, deftly introducing and linking the film’s twin themes of sex and violence.

As the camera pulls back, we see that it’s Guy, not Bonnie, doing some target practice. But Stanley Shpetner’s screenplay quickly identifies Bonnie as the dominant player in their relationship. When Guy walks into the sleazy diner where she works and tries out some stale pickup lines on her, she flings a pan of hot grease in his direction with the warning that she might be too hot for him. This is the first indication of Bonnie’s proclivity for violence. She starts out as a frustrated nonentity—going nowhere in particular and taking her time about it—until she discovers the killer inside her. Bonnie embraces violence the way other women embrace marriage and family. Unlike the herd, she’s bored by the prospect of bland domesticity. Stealing money, and killing anyone who tries to stop her, seems a much more exciting career path.

Hotter than the pistol in her hand.

Violence in turn defines Bonnie’s sexuality. After she and Guy rob a gas station—which she needlessly sets ablaze—their car is pulled over by a motorcycle cop who walks directly into Bonnie’s blistering line of fire. As the pair speed away, Bonnie is suddenly consumed with sexual hunger and kisses Guy with such violence that he almost runs the car off the road. Her insistence on taking pleasure when, where and with whom she wants also gives rise to several instances of black humor. One pungent moment occurs after she lures a couple of hayseeds away from the spot where Guy plans to stash guns for Duke’s prison crashout. She’s gone for a considerable length of time, and her defiant response to Guy’s jealous questions holds the clear implication that she’s had sex with both men in the interim. In another scene, she memorably scatters thumbtacks around her bed to ward off the unwelcome attentions of both husband and boyfriend, whom she forces to sleep in another room. The film’s unspoken joke is that Bonnie has the biggest balls in the gang. The phallic implications of this dynamic are visualized in the long cigars she smokes and the frequency with which she whips out her gun.

Crime couture, circa 1930s.

Relatively small in scope—we see only a fraction of the gang’s numerous robberies—The Bonnie Parker Story compensates with its B movie energy, bursts of brutality and subversive sexuality. Witney invests the film with good period atmosphere despite its low budget, and utilizes appropriately grim and nondescript locations. Outside of Provine’s tawdry sex appeal, no attempt is made to glamorize the settings or characters, in marked contrast to the Technicolor sheen applied to the famous 1968 version, in which Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are unable to transcend their star personas.

No such problem exists for Provine, for whom The Bonnie Parker Story was her debut film. (Legend has it that she got the role a mere three days after her arrival in Hollywood. What one would give to see that story brought to the screen.) She followed it with another bad girl role in Riot in Juvenile Prison (1959) before adding other facets to her persona and graduating to mainstream fare. But she’s at her raw, indelible best in this film, burning up the screen with her combustible allure and strong-willed personality. She plays Bonnie with unapologetic amorality, never once trying to enlist audience sympathy. She maintains that intransigence right up to the moment we hear her voice from the grave before the final credits roll: “We got ourselves a one-way ticket. There’s nothing you can do once you get on, but ride right to the end of the line.”

Getting down and dirty while knocking over a payroll truck.

GUY DARROW’S PAL: “That Bonnie Parker’s a real wildcat.”
GUY DARROW: “Wildcats don’t worry me none. I kind of like the way they scratch when they get excited.”

GUY DARROW: “Honey, you team up with me and we’ll just take what we want. You know as well as I do, you’re just gonna wind up on a street corner, and you won’t be sellin’ newspapers.”
BONNIE PARKER: “Shut the door.”

BONNIE PARKER: “I didn’t lose my nerve. I know right where I left it.”

TEXAS RANGER TOM STEEL: [to the men waiting to ambush Bonnie and Guy]: “Boys, they’re a mighty tricky pair. No matter how dead they look, don’t stop firing until I tell you!”

“Make sure you kill ’em reeal good!”

Fingering the Fifties
• Although the film is set in the 1930s, Bonnie’s rejection of traditional feminine values and behavior not only transgresses social codes of that decade, but also those of the 1950s.

Contemporaneous Reviews
Variety’s 1958 review managed to simultaneously praise and dismiss the film, describing it as “obviously an exploitation item, but capably constructed and intelligently carried out.”

Director: William Witney; screenplay: Stanley Shpetner; producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson, Stanley Shpetner; music: Ronald Stein; cinematography: Jack Marta; format: black and white, 79 minutes, 2.35:1 aspect ratio

Dorothy Provine (Bonnie Parker); Jack Hogan (Guy Darrow); Richard Bakalyan (Duke Jefferson); Joe Turkel (Chuck Darrow); William Stevens (Paul Baxter); Douglas Kennedy (Texas Ranger Tom Steel); Patricia Huston (Chuck’s girlfriend); Joel Colin (Bobby); Jeff Morris (Marvin); James Beck (Alvin); Carolyn Hughes (contact girl)

The real Bonnie Parker.

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  1. Another trenchant analysis of a lost '50s gem. Thanks for helping ensure that these films don't slip through the cracks of time.

  2. Great write-up. Always love those brazen, ballsy broads from that era. She makes Faye Dunaway look like Dakota Fanning.